How in the world was Adele ever supposed to follow up a record like 21? The short answer is that she couldn’t. 21 was one of the most overt and unapologetic break-up records ever produced. It was the beautifully orchestrated representation of her actual real-world pain at the moment she wrote and recorded it. It also took hold of the zeitgeist to a nearly Thriller or Nevermind-level degree. To attempt to retread that material or revisit a similar set of themes could have been a major career misstep—too much, too soon—so she waited. She met someone new; she had a baby; she lived her life. She collected a whole new set of experiences and gained a number of different outlooks and insights that only come with the passage of time. And then she went into the recording studio.
Despite some of the minor-key tones that permeate through many of the songs on this album, 25 travels far away from feeling like a collectively melancholic experience. In juxtaposition with her last work, which was created amid the fallout of a terrible personal trauma, the new album is about appreciating those important people and things that make up her world and her refusal to compromise them in any way. The joy of motherhood runs through the record, never more so than on touching song “Remedy,” but so does all the fear and hurt that comes along with that heady role. The love she has for her partner is brought into an intense focus on “I Miss You,” but it’s couched in the vulnerable framework of post-fight insecurity.
To create these sonic platforms to explore and express her innermost thoughts and feelings, Adele enlisted one of the most formidable production teams of the last decade. Leading the way is pop-music savant and Taylor Swift collaborator Max Martin, who lends a hand on the decidedly upbeat “Send My Love (To Your New Lover).” Danger Mouse takes over for the electrifying “River Lea,” her 21 production partner Paul Epworth shows up for the tender ode “Sweetest Devotion,” and Ryan Tedder returns for the piano ballad “Remedy.” The wide range of voices in the creative process really helps to create a far more eclectic record than 21 ever was.
While the music itself is interesting, Adele’s voice remains the big draw of 25. It’s an unbelievable instrument, quite unlike anything else in music at the moment. In one minute she adopts an incredible, gritty sultriness on the verses to “When We Were Young”—co-written with Tobias Jesso Jr.—and in the next she’s blowing the house down on the choruses of “Hello.” It seems as though the vocal-chord surgery she received in 2011 has only made her singing that much more dexterous and powerful.
When it comes down to it, however, the lion’s share of Adele’s appeal stems from her authenticity. A lot of people can sing, and sing marvelously, but it’s far more rare to find someone as authentic in their delivery as she is. Adele is one of the rare artists in the modern landscape that gives more of herself away in her music than on any kind of social media platform or to the paparazzi. She’s the anti-Kardashian. She’s relatable to many for her yearning to lead a “normal life” and the doggedness in which she pursues it. Her music feels authentic because, as a listener, you believe that these songs about love, pain, fear, and loss come from somewhere real and personal. On 25, she once again has something to say, with a voice that demands to be heard.